Holy God, Holy Mighty One,
Holy Immortal One, Have Mercy…
The Holy Father’s address at the General Audience of 5 May 2010, continuing his series of reflections on the specific tasks of priests, which, according to tradition, are essentially three: to teach, to sanctify, to govern, was devoted to the second task the priest has, that of sanctifying, above all through the sacraments and the worship of the Church.
Pope Benedict said to those gathered in St. Peter’s Square, “… to sanctify a person means to put him in contact with God, with … light, truth, pure love. It is obvious that this contact transforms the person. … Without a minimum contact with God, man cannot live. Truth, goodness, love are fundamental conditions of his being.” [Translation by ZENIT]
The Holy Father points out that contemporary emphasis on the priest’s role as a preacher of the word has perhaps been at the expense of the priest’s role as sanctifier in and through the sacraments. More specifically the Pope says: “It is necessary to reflect if in some cases this undervaluing of the faithful exercise of the munus sanctificandi did not represent, perhaps, a weakening of the faith itself in the salvific efficacy of the sacraments and, in short, in the present action of Christ and of his Spirit, through the Church, in the world.” The key word to understanding Pope Benedict’s message (at least for my purposes here) is undervaluing: it would be hard to resist the argument that the casual, the conversational, the flighty and whatever might be thoughtlessly borrowed from the everyday not only tends to but does indeed undervalue the exercise of the sanctifying task of the priest and, yes, it weakens the faith of the priest, first of all, but also of God’s People. We are not far from describing here what is meant in the Gospel admonition condemning those who “scandalize God’s little ones”.
At the heart of the task of sanctifying the Holy Father places the celebration of two sacraments in particular: the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist, which he exhorts priests to celebrate and live with intensity. Thereby the priest can show forth the infinite mercy and tenderness of God. Pope Benedict renews once again his invitation to priests to aspire to moral perfection and thereby provide an example of faith and witness of sanctity for the building up of the People of God.
While such words always present a challenge to me as a priest, I find no small encouragement in these words as well. They strengthen my conviction concerning the urgency of a recovery of a sense of the sacred in worship. You might rightly accuse me of being less “down to earth” than the Holy Father, especially as regards the Sacrament of Penance, where he is basically pleading concretely/pragmatically for the availability of the priest in the confessional and the restoration of the confessional as the rightful place for the celebration of this great sacrament of God’s forgiveness. His message even includes an invitation for the priest to simply spend time in there (there being the “box”).
Indeed, the Holy Father makes the confessional a true place of encounter with the mercy of God by fixing its proper ambience, rightfully situated in church and in the sight of Our Lord in the Tabernacle. Penance in the confessional channels or forms the experience of this sacrament, really transporting the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation beyond the limits of a mere human exchange in everyday surroundings, whether they be as simple and unadorned as your back step or as grandiose as a seaside at sunset or a mountaintop confession to a best friend. We people who confess regularly in a church setting know what a difference it makes to be able to come out into the silence of the church and place ourselves in the presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. We’re moving beyond the barebones affirmation of the efficacy of the sacrament which, all things being equal, anywhere and everywhere forgives sins. We intend to make a statement about ambience and obedience to Church law as a sure antidote to the kind of undervaluing which can take place … “weakening … the faith itself in the salvific efficacy of the sacraments and, in short, in the present action of Christ and of his Spirit, through the Church, in the world.”
Much the same commentary can be made on the Holy Father’s repeated invitations to celebrate and live with intensity the Eucharist. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass rightly celebrated bends or binds my focus in such a way that our habitual cry becomes that of the psalm refrain “…not to us, not to us, O Lord, but to Your Name give the glory”. A careless celebration of the Eucharist certainly has its hidden effect through grace but when the source and summit of Christian existence is properly brought to completion, it offers that much more not only as a plus but as a duty yoked to the priest’s and the Church’s task in the Name of the Lord “… to sanctify a person … to put him in contact with God, with … light, truth, pure love.”
Pope Benedict rightly calls priests to a profound change of heart. His invitation to priests to aspire to moral perfection and thereby provide an example of faith and witness of sanctity for the building up of the People of God is not breath wasted. The Holy Father wields the two-edged sword of God’s Word here and lovingly calls us all to account. He speaks in faith, confident that God’s Word will not return to Him without achieving that for which He sent it out.
As I say, the goal is the recovery of the sacred in every parish church. Some ask how such a recovery is possible, such a cleansing of the temple, casting out all the folly which around the world holds so much church space hostage. Personally, I think of every Adoration Chapel as a bridgehead and the necessary assurance to any fainthearted priest that he has allies for recapturing the body of the church and holding it secure for silence, for recollection, for genuine worship in spirit and in truth. The body of witness for what is possible, what has already been achieved in the parish next door, if you will, is truly impressive and challenges every priest to review his choices and, if need be, change his way of celebrating such that those who come in search of the living God might truly find Him.Munus sanctificandi, ZENIT translates munus with task; duty, Father, isn’t far off either. In any case, it is all about what you were created for by the Church’s prayer and the laying on of hands: for to sanctify is to put yourself and others “in contact with God, with … light, truth, pure love.” Rabble-rousing and cheer-leading are not part of the job description.